Worldwide more than a half a million foreign nationals are detained abroad. In some countries’ prison populations they make up significant proportions, particularly where there are large migrant workers communities. The highest percentage can be found in the Middle East with more than one in two prisoners being a foreigner.
Common offences that persons are detained for include immigration-related (including while waiting for deportation) and drug offences.
There is a disproportionate number of foreign nationals among female prison populations. In Hong Kong and Macau, which have the largest proportions of female prisoners globally, the majority of women are foreign nationals; most have been convicted for either drug trafficking or immigration violations (common among foreign sex workers).
Foreign nationals’ experience of prison is characterised by isolation, language barriers, limited or no family contact, discrimination and a limited understanding of the prison regime and broader criminal justice procedures. In addition, they face challenges linked to their immigration status – such as deportation – as well as difficulty in accessing rehabilitation
Language barriers and lack of support networks to assist them, along with low levels of understanding or awareness of their legal rights, mean they are extremely vulnerable to abuse, especially in the case of women.
Studies point to it being ‘virtually impossible’ for foreign nationals to avoid pre-trial detention or a prison sentence at conviction. They may not be able to meet the conditions to establish their ‘roots in the community’, lacking formal family ties or property ownership that is required for some alternatives. A study in Europe found that, in 2015, the percentage of foreign nationals placed on probation was much lower than those in prison.
While entitled to assistance under international law, in practice only a few countries provide assistance to their nationals. Many countries have agreements in place to allow for the transfer of sentenced persons to serve their sentence in their country of origins. There are multiple benefits of such regimes, including that people in prison can have closer contact with their support networks, critical for successful rehabilitation and reintegration.